The Magic of Mushrooms


PSILOCYBIN-assisted treatments—for depression, cancer pain, addiction—may not appeal to everyone, but the film Fantastic Fungi has been raising curiosity about these and other mushrooms that are non-hallucinogenic and potentially health-enhancing.

In small studies in the U.S. and many in East Asia, lion’s mane mushrooms have spurred nerve growth and helped patients with mild memory loss; while turkey tail and reishi mushrooms have shown immune-boosting effects in cancer patients. And more than 100 species of so-called “magic” psychedelic mushrooms exist—although most research participants receive synthetic psilocybin for better control of variables, such as strength.

(Neither plant nor animal, mushrooms belong to the Kingdom of Fungi, which includes other members like yeasts, rusts and slime mold. What is visible and edible is the organism’s fruit, while the mushroom body is a wide mass of traveling tendrils called the mycelium that is usually unseen, often underground and can cover many acres.)

“Rapid and large reductions in depressive symptoms” was the finding in a Johns Hopkins study of 24 participants that made the news in November, with “most patients showing improvement and half of study participants achieving remission through the four-week follow-up,” according to the Hopkins report.

“The magnitude of the effect we saw was about four times larger than what clinical trials have shown for traditional anti-depressants on the market,” according to Hopkins psychiatry professor Alan Davis. Those drugs can take weeks or months to work, often have side effects, and for about half the patients result in “some improvement,” while the psilocybin experience resulted in “remissions:” that is, those patients were no longer depressed.

While questions arise about the Fantastic Fungi film’s objective accuracy on health benefits of mushrooms, reviewer Matt Fagerholm notes that, “What is inarguable are the motivations of those in power when attempting to censor the medical and spiritual breakthroughs produced by fungi.”  Fagerholm points to psilocybin as “a far less costly option to Prozac.”

Most research on the 270 or so mushroom varieties thought to have medicinal properties comes from Japan, China and Korea. In a Japanese study, lion’s mane “significantly improved” mild cognitive impairment and mental functioning. In mice, it has reduced symptoms of memory loss; and in laboratory studies, stimulated the production of nerve growth factor, which promotes the growth and differentiation of neurons that normally slow with age.

About the effects of various varieties of mushrooms in cancer patients, the U.S. site Cancer.gov repeats the notice, “The FDA does not approve dietary supplements as safe or effective.” For turkey tail mushrooms, the site mentions that Japanese researchers have used the active ingredient PSK “as an adjuvant therapy in thousands of cancer patients since the mid-1970s”—including those with gastric, breast, colorectal and lung cancer.

And for reishi mushrooms, research in both Japan and China suggests they bolster the immune system in patients with lung cancer. For colon cancer, these mushrooms decreased the size and numbers of tumors, and stopped benign colorectal tumors from forming.

In the report on reishi from Memorial Sloan Kettering, “laboratory studies suggest that these mushrooms may stimulate some cells of the immune system. A small clinical trial showed that reishi can enhance immune response in advanced-stage cancer patients. More studies are needed.”

In the U.S. the economics of fungi pose the biggest obstacle to explorations of their medicinal effects, mostly because such preparations are unlikely to return a profit on the costs of research and development—but also because they could cut deeply into ongoing profits from current medications, notably Prozac.

In the case of psychedelic-assisted therapy, money may also create a different problem—in the transition from research to widespread use—because of the large number of therapist hours involved, which can add up to treatment costs of $10,000 or more per patient not covered by insurance.

Early studies at Johns Hopkins on psilocybin for smoking cessation—chosen because of easily quantifiable outcomes, compared with mood problems like depression—offered participants three sessions or “trips.” In addition, each participant had several weeks of cognitive-behavioral therapy, which can help change patterns of addictive thinking. The result: 67% of subjects remained abstinent 12 months after their quit date—compared to about a 35% success rate for other smoking-cessation methods.

For the depression study, each of 24 patients had two five-hour psilocybin sessions —with a therapist sitting at their side for support and guidance—in addition to therapists’ assessments beforehand and therapy sessions afterwards.

For psychedelic therapy, too, other issues arise such as the possibility of a “bad trip”—although “safe environments and trusted companions may decrease the risk of negative experiences,” according to the extensive and continuously updated “Ultimate Psychedelic Research Review” from MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies).

“From ‘life-alteringly positive’ to ‘nighmarish,’ depending on the individual in question,” is the MAPS description of psychedelic trips. Those individuals who appear “more susceptible to experiencing anxiety during psilocybin dosing” are those who score high, among the “Big Five” personality traits, in neuroticism, according to the MAPS summary.

But “deeper-level changes in the Big Five personality trait of Openness…which commonly typifies people with active imaginations, creative or artistic tendencies and curious mindsets” can be the flip side of such experiences, making for an ultimately positive outcome.

Psychedelic drugs appear to enhance the ability of neurons to interact with each other—by releasing neurotransmitters like serotonin—while mood disorders appear to impair this ability. According to the MAPS summary, psychedelics could be improving “communication between the brain’s cerebral ‘thinking’ and more emotional ‘well-being’ regions.”

(To clarify, within the larger category of hallucinogens, psychedelics such as psilocybin appear to work by altering the brain’s serotonergic pathways; while “non-psychedelic” hallucinogens like ketamine and MDMA affect other parts of the brain.)

Also a major obstacle to widespread use, the classification of psychedelic mushrooms as a Schedule 1 drug—high potential for abuse or no recognized medical use—makes them illegal, while other mushrooms like lion’s mane and reishi are widely available. Although a handful of U.S. cities have decriminalized plant-based psychedelics, and D.C. voted yes on a recent ballot initiative, local status still requires approval from the DC Council and then from Congress—currently considered unlikely.

Meanwhile, most people’s psilocybin psychedelic trips take place “in the wild” (outside of therapeutic settings), although there’s always the Jamaica vacation, with “mushroom tea” for sale to the public on various beaches, as well as group experiences such as that offered by MycoMeditations.

—Mary Carpenter

Mary Carpenter regularly reports on topical issues in health and medicine.


Editor’s Note: This post initiates a new series on films and books relevant to well-being.

One thought on “The Magic of Mushrooms

  1. Lynn Kelley says:

    There was so much information in this column that I read it twice. Mary’s research and advice are highly valued by me.

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